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Annotating the Physical World - How Much Augmented Reality Cake Will Layar Take?

Imagine pointing your iphone at different locations around you to reveal geographically pertinent annotations and/or other media that people have deposited there. Now there's an app for that.

In futurist circles, this basic world-as-web scenario has been discussed for years (I even worked on one such forecasting project), if not decades. The simplest version of the concept has always been an application that intuitively and instantly blends real-time first-person physical world experience with the valuable data contained Wikipedia, Yelp or other websites, allowing you to instantly access stats about restaurants, concert venues, parks, car dealerships, schools, businesses, etc, that you encounter in your view. Such an app could, for example, provide information about a certain shrub in your yard, allowing quick access to species data, historical photos and related ads from the local lawncare services. Now, thanks to the convergence of smart phones and real-time geo-sensing, a new Android app (iPhone app out shortly) called Layar, marketed as the "World's First Augmented Reality Browser", claims it can accomplish exactly that... and then some.

Here's the impressive demo vid released by the developer, SPRX Mobile:

Obviously there's no guarantee that Layar will take the cake (haha, get it - Layar. Cake. - rewriting headline... love bad puns...), especially considering that the Gigantor info companies already have scores of AR-hip forecasters, researchers and developers on payroll, but 1) it is possible the small company could blow up very quickly to become one of the first critical three into the market, and 2) either way, it certainly does look as though somebody is going to create a compelling and quickly diffusable AR app in the very near-term.

Why? Because it's so obviously useful.

Just take a look at this (somewhat crude, but very useful) vision of what AR might look like over the coming years:

Prosumer Value: Easily-to-use AR will have a profound impact on the average prosumer, opening up massive phase space for new content and services. They will of course benefit from the efficiencies inherent in mashing together all this data, but, more interestingly, they will also play an critical role in writing content to these new layers and innovating new applications that interact with this new structured content.

Another Basic Scenario - Ever seen those Google Street View cars with panoramic cameras driving around? Well, imagine this. As component and web costs continue to plummet, it will VERY SOON become for individuals to hook cheap cameras to always-on smart-phones and then broadcast increasingly richer streaming data feeds to the web. It will then be possible to sort this data according to geography (GPS), identity (facial recognition, already getting very good), annotation (voice recognition is just on the cusp), and so forth. This means that some information giant with gazillions of servers will probably find it compelling to incentivize the population of their given information platform. (Google? Microsoft? Yahoo? IBM? Apple?)

Data will of course drop in value as a square to these feeds (inevitable ongoing commoditization), but will that offset the creation of millions of new Feed or Real-Time Quantification jobs? Even if they are low-paying, I find it likely that they will pay out (per capita) on par with, say, Google Adsense, thus opening a whole new market for real-time geo logging/blogging. In fact, I find it likely that this same infrastructure (Adsense, Facebook Connect's forthcoming payment system, PayPal, Microsoft's Content Ad Network) will be used to facilitate payments to proliferating content harvesters, ultimately leading to a great blur between traditional corporate structures and an ever-expanding prosumer cloud (prosumer centralization?).

At the same time, the new applications written atop these new web layers will catalyze a whole new app industry and additional opportunities down the road. No doubt that niche players will counter ongoing prosumer centralization with micro-federations of their own, similar to how the old-media / new-media game has played out.

Context: Made possible by broader innovation convergence, geo-coordinted augmented reality is on the cusp of becoming reality for millions, then billions. Fundamentally, it represents new phase space that will not only lead to big-time near-term market efficiencies, but also contribute to accelerating convergence and open even more phase space. Like the 3D web, it's a formidable catalyst that will contribute to economic, informational and cultural transformation. And it's here, now.

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